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A Pilgrim's Progress

December 12, 1996|COLMAN ANDREWS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Andrews is executive editor of Saveur and author of "Catalan Cuisine" (Atheneum, 1988), "Everything on the Table" (Bantam, 1992) and "Flavors of the Riviera" (Bantam, 1996)

Books about Abraham Lincoln, dogs and medicine were immensely popular years ago, so there was a publishing industry joke that the bestseller of all would be titled "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog."

In recent years, some publishing house might well have considered something titled "100 Quick and Easy Low-Fat, Low-Cal Tuscan Chicken Breast Dishes." (Maybe one did.)

I am grateful that, when I signed a contract back in 1984 to write a book about the food of the Catalan regions of Spain and France, I wasn't asked to make the recipes quick and easy or inauthentically low in olive oil and lard. Still, I was required to include at least 200 recipes.

"You've got to have a lot of recipes," my editor told me. "That's how people buy cookbooks. If your book only has 150 of them and the next one on the shelf has 175, they'll buy the other one, even if it's about some other kind of food."

As a novice in the cookbook-writing game, I had no reason to question my editor's wisdom. And I did not demur when she asked me to cut my 5,000- or 6,000-word chapter on Catalan wines to almost nothing on the grounds that, as she put it, "People who buy cookbooks aren't interested in wine." The book ended up with a three-page list of wine names and 220 recipes. (Take that, cookbook buyers!)

My new book, which I conceived as a sort of companion volume to "Catalan Cuisine," includes about 20 pages on the wines of Nice as well as the neighboring Italian region of Liguria and, though it's roughly twice as long, it has fewer than 150 recipes.

I consider this progress of a sort (though whether this progress reflects more favorably on the publishing industry or my reputation, I'm not sure) and I'm glad about the wine coverage. But I sort of wish "Flavors of the Riviera" didn't have any recipes at all.

I operate on the assumption that food is just about the most fascinating subject in the world. More than any other human motive force with the possible exception of sex--with which it is often linked, metaphorically as well as physically--our universal hunger for both sustenance and the elaboration of sustenance (for, as it were, both the goodness of grain and the frosting on the cake) has propelled and directed us as a race.

Food, directly or indirectly, has led us individually or communally to great endeavor and shameful debasement alike. It has spurred explorations, launched wars, inspired genocide and the slave trade, fed religion and invention and art. Salt and pepper have built empires and destroyed them; codfish has affected the course of human history more than gold.

These are not matters commonly treated by cookbooks, nor should they be. Few cookbook authors are scholars--I'm certainly not one--and any attempts we might make to weave serious historical or anthropological analysis into our work would probably produce little more than pseudo-academic blather dressed in olive oil and vinegar.

On the other hand, it seems to me that there is something naive about food writing that doesn't acknowledge life outside the kitchen walls. Food is created by real people in real places, and those people affect, vitally and directly, what and how and why they cook. I'm convinced that knowing at least a little about the context of food not only increases our appreciation for dishes when we taste them but makes it easier for us to cook them well.

The vast majority of cookbooks, unfortunately, treat dishes in a vacuum, as if all we need to know is how many teaspoons of sugar or ounces of sea bass to use.

When they try to flesh out their pages with little observations or anecdotes, these are often fluff of the "let me tell you a funny story about the first time I tried sushi" variety or are just plain wrong. (One best-selling cookbook not long ago informed the world with a straight face that the word "macaroni" derived from the Italian expression "Ma, carone," supposedly meaning, "But it's very expensive," which is so far off base linguistically, historically and economically it's beyond laughable.)

In general, though, cookbooks are collections of recipes, pure and simple. And although recipe collections are obviously of wide interest, they aren't really about food, any more than home renovation manuals are about architecture. Attach brace loosely to side of No. 3 panel with 2 (3/8-inch) bolts. Cook 1/2 cup minced onion in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil until soft. Without context, a recipe is a how-to diagram--and one, incidentally, that is designed for a skill that is a good deal more ambiguous and instinctual than simply assembling structural elements.

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